Why Do People Have Repressed Anger?

  • People’s habitual way of dealing with anger falls into one of two sets of patterns—externalising it or internalising it.
  • As people who repress anger divert their anger toward themselves, they often suffer from depression, anxiety, and somatisation.
  • When a person represses anger, they may find that many of their other desirable feelings also get numbed out.

Anger is a natural emotion and has to be processed in one way or the other. Normally, people’s habitual way of dealing with anger falls into one of two sets of patterns—externalising it or internalising it.

When these patterns are held in a rigid way or used excessively, there can be detrimental health consequences.

Internalised anger is also known as repressed anger, and it can take different forms. In this article, we will discuss what causes people to repress anger.

When people think of anger, externalised forms of anger often come to mind—someone shouting, hitting something, or acting in an aggressive way. Therefore, many people mistakenly equate anger with aggression. However, being angry does not have to mean someone lashes out.

Externalised anger is not always unhealthy. Healthy expression of anger can help us set boundaries, assert our rights and protect ourselves. People who do not internalise or repress their anger know it when they feel it. Once they have expressed their anger, either through speech or behaviours, the feeling leaves their system. It does not get stuck in the body, remain stuck, or fester. For people who repress their anger, however, the opposite happens.

Repressed Anger and Not Being Able to Get Angry

People who internalise anger hold it within their bodies and psyche. They may direct anger toward themselves and get aggressive toward themselves. They may carry all responsibilities for any conflicts in relationships, blame themselves excessively, and do not assert themselves even when they should. As they divert their anger toward themselves, they often suffer from depression, anxiety, and somatisation (emotions turning into bodily pain or physical ailments).

The problem is that, although it is unconscious, it takes a lot of energy to suppress and re-divert anger. Therefore, people with repressed anger may find that they rarely feel angry, but experience chronic tiredness.

Another problem is that on the flip side of anger are positive human feelings such as love, excitement, and passion. When a person suppresses anger, they may find many of their other desirable feelings get numbed out too. They find it difficult to get excited or passionate; they may also be disconnected from their own needs and desires.

A young person can also hold repressed anger. When they do, they may have coping mechanisms such as self-harming, selective mutism, or restrictive eating. There is no channel for them to express how they feel, and they could not afford to express anger toward their parents who can’t tolerate it. The only way to cope, therefore, is to blame themselves for feeling angry. When these children grow up, they are more prone to suffering from disorders related to internalisation, such as quiet borderline personality disorder or chronic depression.

Another well-known fact about repressed anger is that it can cause physical strain on our bodies. Holding back anger creates inner tension, which can then cause a wide range of psychosomatic ailments, such as indigestion, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, frequent migraines, and even cancer.

Reasons for Repressed Anger

People do not choose to repress their anger voluntarily. While their innate temperaments play a role (“nature” factors), it is normally the result of a person’s childhood experiences (“nurture” factors) and social/cultural conditioning. One may have learned to repress their anger because, as a child, they were discouraged, punished, shamed, silenced, or ignored when they tried to express themselves.

Op-Ed: 1 in 4 adults are estranged from family and paying a psychological price

1 in 4 adults are estranged from family and paying a psychological price

Search “toxic parents” on Instagram, and you’ll find more than 38,000 posts, largely urging young adults to cut ties with their families. The idea is to protect one’s mental health from abusive parents. However, as a psychoanalyst, I’ve seen that trend in recent years become a way to manage conflicts in the family, and I have seen the steep toll estrangement takes on both sides of the divide. This is a self-help trend that creates much harm.

Research by Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, indicates that 1 in 4 American adults have become estranged from their families. I believe that’s an undercount, because others have stopped short of completely cutting off contact but have effectively severed the ties.

“Canceling” your parent can be seen as an extension of a larger cultural trend aimed at correcting imbalances in power and systemic inequality. Certainly the family is one system in which power has never been balanced. In 1933, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi described this dynamic, warning that any asymmetry, even the simple indication that someone has more power than we do, can potentially be traumatic.

Today’s social justice values respond to this reality, calling on us to censure oppressive and harmful figures and to gain power for those who have been powerless. But when adult children use the most effective tool they have — themselves — to gain a sense of security and ban their parents from their lives, the roles are simply flipped, and the trauma only deepens.

Certainly some extreme cases call for cutting parents out of one’s life, even if doing so comes at a psychological cost. Far more often, what I see in my practice are cases of family conflict mismanaged, power dynamics inverted rather than negotiated. I see the shattering effect of that trend: scenarios with no winners, only isolated humans who long to be known and feel safe in the presence of the other.

Some of my patients are young adults who decided to end, or are considering ending, their relationships with their parents. They try to process their parents’ harmful actions in their childhood, their lack of boundaries, and their narcissistic or intrusive behaviors. Those children struggle with anger, pain and guilt and are often feeling confused and lonely.

Certainly some extreme cases call for cutting parents out of one’s life, even if doing so comes at a psychological cost. Far more often, what I see in my practice are cases of family conflict mismanaged, power dynamics inverted rather than negotiated. I see the shattering effect of that trend: scenarios with no winners, only isolated humans who long to be known and feel safe in the presence of the other.

Some of my patients are young adults who decided to end, or are considering ending, their relationships with their parents. They try to process their parents’ harmful actions in their childhood, their lack of boundaries, and their narcissistic or intrusive behaviors. Those children struggle with anger, pain and guilt and are often feeling confused and lonely.

Other patients are parents on the other side of that dynamic, who feel betrayed and heartbroken. It’s hard for them to acknowledge or even recognize their aggression. In my experience, baby boomer parents are especially troubled. They perceive themselves as products of the 1960s social revolution; many of them rejected their own parents’ authoritarian style and followed a parenting approach that at least appeared to prioritize the children’s needs. Those patients feel trapped in generational limbo, neglected by their own parents who didn’t fully know them and abandoned by their children who don’t want to know them.

The vein of online advice about “toxic parents” is a self-help therapy approach that aims to empower younger people to give up on their parents and “re-parent” themselves. It encourages them to do the needed emotional work on their own and urges them to reject parental figures altogether, avoiding any kind of dependency on another person.

In this cultural moment, and especially because of COVID disruptions to young careers, adult kids are either becoming more dependent on their parents or are rejecting their dependency altogether. We’re in the era of millennials living in their parents’ basements, and also in the era of millennials cutting their parents out of their lives.

The catch is that after estrangement, adult children are not suddenly less dependent. In fact, they feel abandoned and betrayed, because in the unconscious, it doesn’t matter who is doing the leaving; the feeling that lingers is one of “being left.” They carry the ghosts of their childhood, confronting the emotional reality that those who raised us can never truly be left behind, no matter how hard we try. They live inside us, even without our permission. This is something that can never be canceled.

What I have found is that most of these families need repair, not permanent rupture. How else can one learn how to negotiate needs, to create boundaries and to trust? How else can we love others, and ourselves, if not through accepting the limitations that come with being human? Good relationships are the result not of a perfect level of attunement but rather of successful adjustments.

To pursue dialogue instead of estrangement will be hard and painful work. It can’t be a solitary project of “self-help,” because at the end of the day, real intimacy is achieved through mutual vulnerability and by working through the injuries of the past together. In most cases of family conflict, repair is possible and preferable to estrangement — and it’s worth the work.

Galit Atlas is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan. She is the author of the forthcoming “Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients and the Legacy of Trauma.”

Parents want their children to be more thankful, poll finds

Parents want their children to be more thankful, poll finds

The season of giving thanks can’t come quickly enough for some parents.

Four in five parents who responded to a poll from the University of Michigan Health say children today are not grateful enough.

Parents who responded to the poll say they are teaching their children the magic words, “please and thank you.” However, when it comes to actions over words, the children — and parents — could be falling short, said Sarah Clark, research scientist at the University of Michigan and co-director of the poll.

Nearly all parents say it’s possible to teach children gratitude, and three-fourths of parents say teaching gratitude is a priority. The most common ways parents teach children gratitude are “please and thank you,” followed by enforcing chores. Just over one-third of parents use strategies like donating toys or clothes and saying a prayer of thanks.

“My hope is a poll like this causes some parents to stop and think about, ‘Are we being purposeful about teaching our kids how to be grateful?'” Clark said.

The national sample includes parents of children 4 to 10 years old. The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan conducts monthly polls to observe child health. The poll “purposefully” did not define gratitude; Clark said parents had to bring their own interpretation of the word.

The poll’s report also provided five strategies to nurture gratitude in children — including saying thank you, discussing gratitude, helping with family chores, volunteering and donating.

Expressing gratitude can improve mental health for both children and adults, studies have found. But children don’t develop gratitude automatically — parents need to model and create strategies to teach children these behaviors, Clark said. Volunteering and community service can help children see what they should be thankful for, and what they can do for others, the report said.

Emily Conder, a research scientist and doctoral student in Vanderbilt University’s psychology and human development department, published a study about how children can develop negative biases toward people after overhearing negative words. Children can model behaviors from indirect sources as well.

“It’s important to remember as parents that modeling comes from you and also comes from what’s on TV and what they’re hearing from other sources,” Conder said.

Parents can also play a role in how children process and express emotions, said Ashley Ruba, postdoctoral researcher in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.

She said when parents talk to their children about emotions, both positive and negative, children have a better understanding of what they are feeling and how to react.

“Gratitude can be socialized in a similar way … actually having conversations about things that you’re grateful for and why you’re grateful for these things,” Ruba said.

The emotional and physical toll of the pandemic burdens an already complicated stage of a child’s life. Young people’s depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic, an analysis published in August found.

Ruba said social isolation and missing out on school can be scary for younger children. But strategies like discussing children’s feelings and keeping a gratitude journal can help.

What to Know Anxious Attachment and Tips to Cope

Anxious Attachment and Tips to Cope

Anxious attachment is one of four attachment styles that develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. These attachment styles can be secure (a person feels confident in relationships) or insecure (a person has fear and uncertainty in relationships).

Also known as ambivalent attachment or anxious-preoccupied attachment, anxious attachment can result from an inconsistent relationship with a parent or caregiver.

Adults who are anxiously attached may be considered needy or clingy in their relationships and lack healthy self-esteem.1

Through approaches such as therapy, it’s possible to change attachment styles or learn to have healthy relationships despite attachment anxiety.

What’s Your Attachment Style?

There are four main attachment styles. The following are some of the ways they may manifest in relationships:1

  • Secure attachment: Able to set appropriate boundaries; has trust and feels secure in close relationships; thrives in relationships but does well on their own as well
  • Anxious attachment: Tends to be needy, anxious, and uncertain, and lacks self-esteem; wants to be in relationships but worries that other people don’t enjoy being with them
  • Avoidant-dismissive attachment: Avoids closeness and relationships, seeking independence instead; doesn’t want to rely on others or have others rely on them
  • Disorganized attachment: Fearful; feel they don’t deserve love

History of Attachment Theory

British psychiatrist John Bowlby developed the foundations of attachment theory from 1969 to 1982.2

Attachment theory suggests that early life experiences, particularly how safe and secure you felt as a young child, determine your attachment style as an adult. These events shape your ability to develop trust, boundaries, self-esteem, feelings of security, and other factors at play in relationships.3

Developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth built upon Bowlby’s theory with her “strange situation” test to determine the nature and styles of attachment behavior. The assessment consists of a mother leaving her infant alone with a stranger for a few minutes. The infant’s response is observed and coded when they’re reunited with their mother.2

Exploration of adult attachment began in the mid-1980s by researchers such as Mary Main, Phil Shaver, and Mario Mikulincer.

Attachment theory’s principles are currently supported by hundreds of studies on bonding between child and parent and between adult partners.4

How Closely Linked Are Childhood and Adult Attachment Styles?

While it’s generally accepted that early attachment experiences influence attachment style in adult romantic relationships, the degree to which they are related is less clear-cut. Studies vary in their findings on the source and degree of overlap between the two.5

Characteristics of Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment is an insecure attachment. Insecure attachment can take one of three forms: ambivalent, avoidant, or disorganized.1

It’s believed that anxious attachment in childhood is a result of inconsistent caregiving. More specifically, the children are loved but their needs are met unpredictably. A parent or primary caregiver may respond immediately and attentively to a child sometimes but not at other times.6

This inconsistency can be a result of factors such as parental substance use, depression, stress, anxiety, and fatigue.

Children raised without consistency can view attention as valuable but unreliable. This prompts anxiety and can cause a child to perform attention-seeking behaviors, both positive and negative.

Adults with anxious attachment often need constant reassurance in relationships, which can come off as being needy or clingy.1

One study showed that anxious attachment can affect trust in a relationship. Further, those who are anxiously attached are more likely to become jealous, snoop through a partner’s belongings, and even become psychologically abusive when they feel distrust.7

Recognizing the Signs in Yourself

Some indications that you might be experiencing anxious attachment include:

  • Worrying a lot about being rejected or being abandoned by your partner
  • Frequently trying to please and gain approval from your partner
  • Fearing infidelity and abandonment
  • Wanting closeness and intimacy in a relationship, but worrying if you can trust or rely on your partner1
  • Overly fixating on the relationship and your partner to the point it consumes much of your life
  • Constantly needing attention and reassurance (can be viewed as needy or clingy)
  • Having difficulty setting and respecting boundaries
  • Feeling threatened, panicked, angry, jealous, or worried your partner no longer wants you when you spend time apart or don’t hear from your partner during what most would consider a reasonable amount of time; may use manipulation to get your partner to stay close to you
  • Tying self-worth in with relationships
  • Overreacting to things you see as a threat to the relationship

Recognizing the Signs in Someone Else

A partner who is anxiously attached may exhibit similar behaviors as those listed above, but you can’t know for sure how they are feeling unless they tell you.

Signs of Anxious Attachment in a Partner

  • Regularly seeks your attention, approval, and reassurance
  • Wants to be around you and in touch with you as much as possible
  • Worries you will cheat on them or leave them
  • Feels threatened, jealous, or angry and overreacts when they feel something is threatening the relationship

Strategies for Coping

While anxious attachment can be challenging in a relationship, having a loving, healthy relationship is possible. There are ways to address and get beyond attachment problems in your relationship, including:8

Short Term

  • Research: Learn about attachment styles, which ones best apply to you and, if applicable, your partner.
  • Keep a journal: Keep track of your thoughts and feelings in a journal. This is a helpful exercise for getting out your emotions, and it may help you recognize some patterns in your thoughts and behaviors. It may be worthwhile to bring your journal to therapy sessions where you can unpack its contents with your mental health professional.
  • Choose a partner who has a secure attachment: The chances of success in a relationship for someone with anxious attachment are higher if they are paired with someone who is securely attached.
  • Practice mindfulness: Regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises can help you learn to manage your emotions and your anxiety.
What Is Parentification?

What Is Parentification?

Do you feel like you were pushed into taking care of your parents or siblings when you were only a child yourself? That you became an adult before you were ready for the role?

If you’re nodding, you may have been parentified. Being a “little parent” involves excessive responsibility or emotional burden that can impact a child’s development.

That said, it’s important to remember that some responsibility is a good thing. Helping out a parent on occasion and at the right level helps a child believe in themselves and their ability to one day also be an adult.

Let’s take a closer look at how and when the line into parentification is crossed.

In the typical order of things, parents give and children receive. Yes, sometimes — especially in the early morning hours when your baby is teething — the giving can seem never-ending.

But in general, parents are expected to give their children unconditional love and to take care of their physical needs (food, shelter, daily structure). Emotionally secure children whose physical needs are taken care of are then free to focus their energy on growing, learning, and maturing.

Sometimes, though, this gets reversed.

Instead of giving to their child, the parent takes from them. In this role reversal, the parent may relegate duties to the child. At other times, the child voluntarily takes them on.

Either way, the child learns that taking over the duties of the parent is the way to maintain closeness to them.

Children are pretty resilient. We’ve already said that some level of responsibility can help a child’s development — but 2020 research takes things further. The researchers suggest that sometimes, parentification can actually give a child feelings of self-efficacy, competence, and other positive benefits.

It seems that when a child feels positively about the person they’re caring for and the responsibilities that come with the role of caregiver, the child develops a positive self-image and feelings of self-worth. (Note that this isn’t a reason to pursue or justify parentification.)

Not all parents are able to take care of their children’s physical and emotional needs. In some families, the child takes over the role of caregiver in order to keep the family functioning as a whole.

Parentification can happen when a parent has a physical or emotional impairment, such as the following:

  • The parent was neglected or abused as a child.
  • The parent has a mental health condition.
  • The parent has an alcohol or substance use disorder.
  • The parent or a sibling is disabled or has a serious medical condition.

Parentification can also happen when life throws curveballs, like:

  • The parents are divorced or one parent has died.
  • The parents are immigrants and have difficulty integrating into society.
  • The family experiences financial hardship.

There are two types of parentification: instrumental and emotional.

Is it OK to step in when your child is having a dispute?

Is it OK to step in when your child is having a dispute?

Teacher, friendship expert and founder of a social-emotional wellbeing program for kids, Dana Kerford, explains the desire of parents to become involved usually stems from good intentions.

“That love you feel for your child is raw and visceral,” she says.

“But the second you find out [your child is in pain and] the pain came from another child, that sweet, warm mother hen morphs into Mama Bear.

“What once was warmth and compassion is now anger.”

And while emotions can run strong, Ms Kerford says it is important (in the majority of cases) to try not get involved in your child’s dispute for a whole host of reasons. Here, she outlines five of them.

Your kids fighting might give you a headache, but it can give them important life skills. Experts give tips on what you can do and whether you should do anything at all.

Ms Kerford says that often “involving the other child’s parent is humiliating, embarrassing, and erodes trust” between the parent and child.

2. You can’t view the situation or your child objectively

As a parent, “no matter how hard you try to see things from all perspectives, you will naturally have a bias towards your own child,” Ms Kerford says.

“You not only love your child; you also have a very large sample size of their behaviour to draw conclusions.”

3. Involvement can be charged by emotions

“When we picture anything negative happening to our child, we immediately experience an innate, sometimes even physical reaction,” Ms Kerford says.

While this is normal, it isn’t always helpful, she explains.

4. Your perspective is different than your child

“What’s huge to you might be small for them or vice-versa,” she says.

While you may think it warrants interception, your child may have moved past the issue by the next day.

5. It makes things unnecessarily awkward between you and that parent

“In the one out of 10 times where the conversation seems to go relatively well, even if both parents are well-meaning, it is often the beginning of the end,” she says.

“Your relationship with that parent will naturally feel awkward and one or both of you will come away feeling defensive,” something Ms Kerford says is instinctive.

This awkwardness and sense of discomfort became the reality for Amanda after she was contacted by Carly. She also says that she felt a prevalent bias by the other mother to her son.